By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
While the Washington Redskins were practicing Aug. 9, rookie offensive lineman Kili Lefotu was lying unconscious in his room at the National Conference Center in Leesburg. By the time head coach and team president Joe Gibbs was informed of his absence, the 22-year-old was already being taken to the hospital by ambulance.
Had such an emergency unfolded at any point during Gibbs's first two years back in Washington, when he had a singular grip on everything related to the offense, it likely would have derailed the practice and forced the coaches to scramble without him. But on a humid night under the lights, the drills rolled on seamlessly. Gibbs's handpicked successor atop the offensive hierarchy, Al Saunders, simply ran the session as he had all others since being hired in January, while Gibbs contacted the team's doctors and security staff, briefed owner Daniel Snyder and ensured that Lefotu's family and agent were receiving updates on his status. (Lefotu, who returned to practice the following week after an apparent seizure triggered by sleep apnea, was one of the last cuts the team made on Saturday.)
When Gibbs turned over the offense to Saunders -- a move intended to jolt offensive production and allow Gibbs more time to focus on the duties of team president -- he could never have imagined a night like that. Yet Lefotu's illness, less than two weeks into training camp, served to reaffirm Saunders's role as well as define the club's division of labor.
Gibbs will seek a fourth Super Bowl title as the football equivalent of a CEO: managing the team at the macro level with ample time to interact with employees of every level and deal with other clubs, the NFL office, agents and reporters, while maintaining a hand in the oversight of the offense. It's a role in which Gibbs grew comfortable with his Joe Gibbs Racing team in NASCAR, but it remains rare in the NFL.
"There are so many things that come up around here, whether it's personnel issues or injuries, and certainly that [illness] was something that none of us counted on," Gibbs said. "So when something like that happens, it probably gives you more freedom. Before I could have done the same thing, but then the problem would have been that the offensive coaches normally were waiting, and I think now it's full speed ahead and Al handles everything. So I feel good about that, and I can definitely say that this year I would have held them up a lot."
Gibbs, 65, was willing to divest himself of the offense, though his scheme was the envy of the league during his first stint with the Redskins (1981-92). The playbook, practice routines and play-calling are all Saunders's domain, with Gibbs sitting in on meetings but no longer leading them, and no longer sequestered solely with the offense. Now he roams Redskins Park, and is more accessible to handle the minutiae of personnel matters, believing he will have a better feel for the entire team this season.
It was a shocking decision for a Hall of Fame coach and an admission that perhaps Saunders was better equipped to complete the evolution of an offense that went from horrid in 2004 to solid in 2005. Those associated with the team say the turnover already is paying off in ways both tangible and subtle, in everything from enhanced camaraderie to Gibbs's improved well-being after two straight years of juggling so much responsibility with so little downtime.
"He's a smart guy and an innovator, so I wasn't surprised by it," said Bubba Tyer, the team's director of sports medicine. "I am curious to see how he handles it, like all of us are, and thus far I think he's done fantastic. I think it makes him a better general in a sense in that he got so focused on the offense he didn't know exactly how they're talking or what they're thinking on the defense.
"And I've been able to talk to him more than in the past, because before, once he goes in the tank [offensive meeting room], you can't disrupt him. So he's been more available from my perspective, and that probably is true with everybody else, too. I'm enjoying it."
Tyer keeps a close eye on Gibbs, a diabetic who had a stent inserted in a heart artery to repair a clog after the 2004 season, and believes he has been rejuvenated, full of energy.
"I think he just felt that the way we were working, hey, he was going to kill himself and kill all of us, too," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense and a Gibbs confidant.
"Joe's just more comfortable right now," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "I see him being more relaxed and rested. He's not ground to a nub."
Gibbs broke the news of the change to his staff individually. He would usually preface the conversation by asking them to postpone any reaction until he provided his full explanation. Soon all were learning Saunders's system and absorbing a 700-page playbook, but the impact of this move resonates well beyond that.
After the first preseason game Aug. 13, for instance, when Gibbs normally would be in offensive meetings all day, he was able to help coordinate the trade of wide receiver Taylor Jacobs to San Francisco. The team suffered a slew of injuries over that weekend, and Gibbs was in frequent contact with the athletic trainers for any developments the Monday after the game, whereas before he often was less aware of the status of the defensive players. He also could confer regularly with the football operations department, as five players were signed that week and five were released, yet no offensive meetings were disrupted.
"Every decision is his, he's the man here," Bugel said. "And he has a better opportunity now to see all of the personnel, not just on one side of the football field. Since we started again there are so many things that are different now in the NFL with free agency, the draft, dealing with players and agents. Joe can do it all now, and he needed more time to do that. He had so many hats on, he needed 32 hours a day to do it all. He had to give up one thing, and when Al Saunders was available he made that decision."
Saunders and Gibbs have known each other almost all of their professional lives, beginning in 1970 at the University of Southern California. Saunders's offense in Kansas City was dominant the past five seasons, he won a Super Bowl with the Rams after the 1999 season and he is considered perhaps the best offensive coordinator in the game.
"I think this is the best way for us to be set up right now," Gibbs said, "and I feel good about what we're doing on the field. So hopefully it'll work out. We've got to see how many games we can win."
Under Saunders, there are fewer gatherings of all offensive players and more position sessions with teaching done in small numbers. "That's how Al prefers it, and that's a pretty big difference," quarterback Mark Brunell said. Staff meetings are generally shorter.
On the field, Saunders employs a direct approach, going down a checklist of what needs to be done, and calls plays from the press box; Gibbs ran the show from field level.
"Their styles are just different," offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. "Al's more, 'Get in there and get it over with and get going,' and we've always talked a lot. Joe loves to tell stories and he still tells some stories when we have staff meetings."
Gibbs's time apart from his longtime assistants has been spent getting to know others in the organization. Williams makes a rookie tell a joke before the daily full-defense meeting during training camp, and early in August, Gibbs was the surprise "novice" to get the nod. The players, who rarely saw Gibbs in this fashion when he ran the offense, cracked up when he entered the room, and he has been a fixture rather than a once-a-week presence.
"All of the guys [on defense] get to see how normal he is now," Williams said. "You know, there's a stigma: 'He has a bust in the Hall of Fame. Holier than thou. Is he approachable? Can you talk to him?' And the guys always knew that for two years, but he is more approachable now in the fact that he's in our meetings, he's laughing and joking with us."
Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington said: "We're a pretty close team, but I definitely think this can improve things because he's in our huddle out there breaking it down with us sometimes on defense. I think it definitely brings everybody closer together."
Practices, the monotonous staple of this sport and the lifeblood of any successful team, have changed under Saunders. He concentrates more on seven-on-seven drills as the players adjust to the intricacies of his system. Gibbs can wander among drills as he sees fit and not be bound to the offense's schedule, a significant change he began adjusting to during spring practices.
"I catch myself looking for him every now and again because I'm used to him being at least near me," said running backs coach Earnest Byner, who played for Gibbs from 1989 to '92. "Every now and again I look around like: 'Where's Coach? Oh, okay, he's over there.' So it's definitely different for us, and I'm sure it's different for him, too."
So much of this new role is unknown to Gibbs, and even some of the staff members admit they can't help but wonder if he ever has second thoughts. Come Monday night, with the adrenaline of a fresh season pumping through the Redskins and hopes high for a long playoff run, will there be any remorse with Saunders directing things?
"I don't think I'll miss it," Gibbs said. "It's just different."
Not all has changed, however. Gibbs will still roam the sideline on game days wearing his headset, voicing opinions, chatting with coaches throughout the game. He will step into the fray whenever he needs to and will decide whether to go for it on fourth down, when to opt for field goals and challenging plays, or if the team has been calling too many runs or passes in a sequence.
So far, Saunders said, he has been doing for Gibbs what he did for Dick Vermeil in St. Louis and Kansas City. The Saunders-Vermeil partnership -- devoid of egos, free from power issues -- resulted in one title, and repeating that accomplishment is the goal again, just as it always is for all 32 teams.
"If I felt like this wasn't the right situation, I wouldn't have done it," Saunders said, "because it wouldn't have been good for me and it wouldn't have been good for Joe. He was very sure about what he wanted to do and I was humbled that he would feel so strongly that he wanted me to do this for him. I'm hopeful that I can do for him what I did for Dick and allow him to be the head football coach and not worry about the offense. There was no hesitation on my part, because I know Joe too well as a man. I'm just very honored and privileged to be here with him."